By Laura Gottesdiener and Lizbeth Diaz
REYNOSA, Mexico (Reuters) -News the United States is poised to end a pandemic-related border expulsion policy is buoying hopes of thousands of migrants who have waited months in Mexico for a chance to seek asylum in the United States.
U.S. health officials are set to announce plans this week to terminate the order, known as Title 42, in May, Reuters reported on Wednesday.
More than a million migrants have been expelled under the order since it was put in place in March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the policy, U.S. border agents rapidly send people back to Mexico or other countries, often within hours after being apprehended, without giving them a chance to ask for refuge, a process rights groups say unlawfully denies them access to asylum.
In a public plaza in Reynosa, Mexico, nearly 2,000 migrants are camping in tents or under tarps right across the U.S. border from McAllen, Texas. Most are from South and Central America and the Caribbean, and have fled violence or persecution in their home countries.
On Thursday morning, under a beating sun, about a dozen migrants lined up to see volunteer health workers in the camp. A group of women fried fish over an open flame and children ran around, playing with marbles, racing scooters and sweeping up trash.
Aile Rodriguez, 32, has family in McAllen but has been waiting since last August at the camp with her three children, aged 8, 13, and 15. She said they fled Honduras because of gang threats to their family and hope to seek asylum in the United States. “I want to enter legally,” she said. “That’s why we’ve suffered here for seven months.”
U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has kept Title 42 in place since taking office in January 2021, even as he pledged to reverse the hardline immigration policies of his Republican predecessor, President Donald Trump.
Immigration advocates, health experts and fellow Democrats have decried the order saying it violates migrants’ rights while exposing them to danger in Mexico.
Glendy Juana de Leon, 30, from Guatemala said she was denied a chance to ask for asylum when she crossed the border in July. She has spent the nine months since her expulsion in the Reynosa camp with her eight-year-old son. She said she left home after death threats from her husband, who is in jail for domestic violence but is slated to be released soon.
“I have all my documents, from the hospital, from the police in Guatemala, but they didn’t look at any of them,” she said. “God willing they’ll change,” she said, “and ask us why we fled.”
On the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico across from San Diego, California, Enrique Lucero, the municipal director of migrant services said he estimates there are thousands of migrants waiting to make their case for asylum.
“This gives them hope,” said Jose Maria Garcia, the director of Tijuana’s Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter, referring to the plans to lift Title 42.
Garcia and other immigrant advocates have long criticized the policy and are cheering its end. But Garcia acknowledged the decision could strain the border’s already crowded shelters if more migrants head north.
“Most of the shelters are already at capacity,” he said.
Republicans have criticized Biden’s immigration policies as the number of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border broke records last year and is set to rise further this year.
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on Thursday said ending Title 42 would “effectively throw our borders wide open,” and “spark a humanitarian and security crisis like we’ve never seen.” The move could become a major attack point as his party seeks to win a majority in the November congressional elections.
Democrats have argued that the United States must welcome, not block, asylum seekers. U.S. Representative Judy Chu from California said the order’s use has been “a shameful time in our country’s history.”
But U.S. and Mexican officials say not all migrants have valid asylum claims, which is narrowly defined in U.S. law.
Esteban Moctezuma, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, said at an event in Washington that if Title 42 is lifted, migrants who aren’t seeking refuge should be sent home to prevent a “revolving door” at the border.
(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City and Laura Gottesdiener in Reynosa; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Aurora Ellis)